Note: This review contains unavoidable spoilers for Book One in the Princess Academy series, but no spoilers for this second book.
Despite the perhaps misleading reference to princesses in the title, the girls in the “Princess Academy” series, while fictional, still present some of the best role models for young girls you can find in children’s books. These are girls who are determined to made a difference with their lives, and do so!
I loved the first book in this series, Princess Academy (see my review here). You don’t need to read it to enjoy fully this continuation of the story of the heroine Miri, but the two books are so enjoyable and inspirational you might as well read them both!
Miri comes from Mount Eskel, a village known for its mining of linder, a silvery marble-like stone. This fictional substance conveys a kind of extra-sensory perceptiveness to those who work in the quarries, breathe in its dust, and drink the water from streams that run through the linder mountain. “Lowlanders” in the kingdom of Danland look down upon those from up on Mount Eskel; nevertheless, traders from the Lowlands come three times a year to haul the valuable stone down the mountain, and bring food and other provisions in return.
This time, when the traders come, some of the girls from Mount Eskel will be going back with them to Asland, where the King and Queen live. The year before, royal priests had divined that Mount Eskel was the home of the future Princess. So all eligible girls were required to attend a “Princess Academy” to learn about the subjects they might need to know if selected by Prince Steffan. Although Miri was the top student, the Prince picked Miri’s friend Britta to be his bride. Now Britta has invited Miri to come, along with five other Academy girls, to attend her wedding. Also, she told Miri there was an opening for her at the Queen’s Castle, a university in Asland at which Miri could continue the studies she had grown to love. Britta even arranged for Miri’s crush Peder to get an apprenticeship with a stone carver in the capital. They could all go down to Asland together.
There were some dark notes to this bright opportunity, however. Miri would miss her father and her older sister Marda terribly. Additionally, Katar – one of the girls from the Academy who went to Asland to be a delegate to the royal court – wrote Miri that there was some kind of trouble brewing there.
Miri joins the trader wagons for the trip with mixed feelings, but soon she is caught up in the excitement of a big city and in the wonder of the new subjects she is learning. At first history is a disappointment – there are no books about Mount Eskel! But the whole idea of history suggests something new to her: does it have to be a “dead” subject about static names on a page, or can memories come alive and change the world? What she learns in ethics also stymies her: how do you decide between two equally unpleasant choices? Is there any time when ends justify the means, no matter how repugnant? Does the greater good ever outweigh individual values?
These aren’t just academic questions. The threat of revolution is roiling Asland. Too many people go hungry, and the Nobles and the King take too much in tributes. Miri knows about poverty and injustice from her background on Mount Eskel, and wants to side with the “shoeless.” But one of her dearest friends is about to become Princess of the hated establishment! How can she choose between them? How much credence should she give to her head, and how much to her heart?
She even faces choices on the romantic front. Her crush Peder doesn’t pay all that much attention to her, not like Timon, a worldly fellow scholar….
Discussion: Is this book in the category of Middle Grade or Young Adult? It certainly has nothing in it that would be objectionable for younger readers, but neither does it have anything in it that won’t appeal to older readers, including this WAY older reader.
Evaluation: Don’t be put off by the word “princess” in the titles! These books are totally not related to the whole girls-just-want-to-be-princesses trope. On the contrary, Miri and her friends want to make their marks in the world, and they do so with pluck, aplomb, intelligence, and humor. Miri and the other girls are terrific role models, and wonderful characters.
When Shannon Hale is on her game, she is one charming and engaging story teller!
Published by Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers, 2012